I’m a Navy veteran, currently serving in the Reserves, and the son of an Army veteran. My father’s brother served two tours as a Marine Corps infantryman in Vietnam and a good family friend also completed a deployment to Vietnam with the Navy. Veterans Day carries a special meaning to me but also one that evolved over the years.
I spent my childhood celebrating this day with my family, learning about my father’s time in the service and the sacrifices he and others made for the country, and sharing in the collective, abundant pride that we felt towards those who answered the call to serve. Listening to my father’s stories about what his service meant to him, and about other men and women who served our nation, played a huge role in my decision to join the Navy in 1999.
While Veterans Day will forever be a cause for celebration and a time to honor the sacrifices of veterans, I view this day a little differently now than I did when I was a child. As an adult, I regard this day as an opportunity – a chance to remind the nation about the challenges our community faces both during and after service, so that we can ensure they are properly taken care of when they return home.
This past year and a half has come with its unique set of challenges for the veteran community – a significant portion being mental-health related. This year, a study about the impact of Covid-19 on veterans’ mental health found that nearly one year into the pandemic, the prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder increased, particularly among middle-aged veterans. Additionally, one of seven veterans experienced increased distress. Quick Reaction Force, veteran organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s (IAVA) comprehensive care program, reported a nearly 500% increase in veterans reaching out for support since the beginning of Covid-19 (compared to the previous 18 month period). The program also saw a 50% increase in mental-health-related needs since the pandemic hit.
Between a once-in-a-century global pandemic, the abrupt end of the war in Afghanistan, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the ongoing fight to attain veteran benefits for some – like those unfairly discharged for being part of the LGBTQ+ community, to veterans seeking health care benefits for exposure to burn pits and toxic exposures – one thing is abundantly clear: veterans deserve access to quality resources and support when they return home from service.
Transitioning from the military can be difficult and some veterans experience challenges reintegrating into civilian life – including employment, homelessness, and mental health related needs. We’ve heard mentions in the news that the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan coupled with the lingering effects of the pandemic has compounded feelings of anger, sadness, despair and isolation among veterans, spurring increased mental health concerns in our community.
However, the following stats might be less familiar to most. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2021 veteran suicide prevention report, about 17 veterans died by suicide every day in 2019. A recent membership survey by IAVA, an organization representing over 425,000 veterans and allies nationwide, also found that 43% of its members have considered suicide following joining the military. There are many factors that contribute to a veteran taking their own life – from mental health related needs, employment struggles, threat of homelessness, isolation, and difficulty accessing care, to name a few. These jarring statistics are neon signs to invest in and provide swift access to better care for all transition related challenges veterans may be experiencing.
As a Navy veteran and the leader of a veteran service organization, one of my personal and professional goals is to make quality mental health care more accessible to veterans. Throughout my time at IAVA as CEO, and previously as the COO, I have worked hard to expand mental health care within the veteran community and advocated for change in the many other areas that require expanded or improved services, including modernization of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which expands across all areas of service delivery.
On this Veterans Day, I’m calling on all elected officials, community members and veteran advocates to commit to effectively supporting our nation’s veterans. This includes: making mental healthcare more accessible to veterans by continued and better implementation of IAVA-backed bills like Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, as well as being open, honest, and transparent in talking about mental health challenges. We do a disservice to our community by staying silent around the subjects of stress and struggle.
On an individual level, you can support America’s veterans in a multitude of ways, including joining IAVA’s second annual virtual veterans day Support America’s Veterans (SAV) March happening today. The goal for this event is for all participants to collectively march 2,093 miles, to raise awareness and money for the issues faced by the veteran community – including, veteran suicide and mental healthcare – and to foster nationwide camaraderie among vets, a lot of whom are struggling with feelings of isolation during this challenging time.
Veterans and servicemembers are the backbone of our country. Celebrating their lives and sacrifices is an honor and advocating for them a privilege. Today, we commemorate the sacrifices of those who continue to carry the wounds, both mentally and physically, from their fight for the cause of freedom, liberty, and justice.
To get help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). There is also a crisis text line. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.